Lisa Bella Donna is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, and modular synthesist. She has many years of experience as a session musician and has developed extensive techniques with a variety of genres including musique concreté, micro-tonal music, orchestration, film composition, and more.

Recently, Lisa put out two new albums, Night Flight and Orchards of Churchyard Departures. Both records are sonically fitting for the Halloween season, as they feature a number of dark and brooding tones created using a wide range of analog and digital synths.

To celebrate the impending arrival of October 31st, we recently had the pleasure of chatting with Lisa for a very spooky interview. Read on to learn about her favorite synths, why she tracks all of her albums to tape, and a few tips for scoring horror and sci-fi films.

How did you get into synths and sound design?
I got into synths pretty early on. My mom used to listen to a lot of different kinds of music and one of her favorite records was Gary Wright’s Dreamweaver, which has a lot of ARP and Moog synthesizers on it. She used to play that album really loud and she told me, “This is what the future is going to sound like.” That definitely stuck with me.

Shortly after she remarried, my Step-Dad — who was an extremely versatile and educated music listener — played me Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach when I was about nine-years-old. It really blew my mind to hear that kind of classical repertoire played with synthesizers in such a beautiful way. 

A long time went by and I never really had the opportunity to have a synthesizer. I did have a Wurlitzer Orbit III organ, which did have a synthesizer in it. In my late teens, I became a professional session musician, studio gopher and tape editor, which is where I really got to experience an analog synthesizer for the first time. As well as the popular synths of the era, which would have been the mid-to-late 80s.

What are some of your favorite synths in your collection?
I still use some of the synthesizers that I acquired back then, like an ARP Odyssey, an ARP Axxe, a pair of ARP 2600s, and a Moog Prodigy, which I bought in 1987. They’re all sitting right here and I still use them often.

I also have an ARP Omni, which was the first synthesizer that I ever bought for myself. The studio I worked at owned the ARP Odyssey originally, which I eventually acquired. At the time, they thought of it as old junk—they mostly had the Odyssey for filtering other devices. 

By then, they were using Roland B50s and Yamaha music computers like the DX7 and TX816. Those synths are all the rage now, but I never liked the sound of them. Back then, I wanted something that sounded really rich. Something I could touch like an organ. 

What are some of the best or most popular synths for sound design?
The Moog One is one of the most amazing and versatile synthesizer systems you can buy. You can get so many different ranges of sounds with it. Before I had the opportunity to really sit down with one, I didn’t take them very seriously. I thought it would be a great synth, of course, but I didn’t realize how deep those things go. It’s really amazing.

I would say an ARP 2600 or Moog Matriarch are good choices. The Moog ecosystem has some cool semi-modular stuff. The Moog 15 can’t be beaten. There’s nothing that captures low-end like a Moog 15. There’s nothing that sounds like an ARP 2500, either. You have so much sonic control that you can do almost anything with it.

As for modern synths, I think that Novation makes some very unique-sounding synthesizers, GRP as well. The [UDO] Super 6 is a really amazing analog synth too. 

What other instruments or controllers do you use to create music?
I keep it pretty synthesized at this point, but I spent many years as a jazz drummer, keyboardist, and guitarist. I’ve also played in R&B and neo-soul bands as both a keyboardist and guitarist. I played in a progressive death metal band as the guitarist for about 10 years. I’ve even done contemporary country music. I’m a multi-instrumentalist and elements of all of those styles find their way into my music.

But lately, I’ve decided to really go with what I love, which is synthesis. It’s really what makes me feel like I have a personal control that allows me to be free with my ideas. There are certain physical facilitations of other instruments that can be frustrating when you may hear something a certain way and there’s no way to recreate it. With synthesis, I don’t feel that there are too many things in my way. I feel very in control of my world.

Tell me about your recording process—what kind of recording equipment are you using?
I use a combination of analog open-reel tape recorders and a DAW. It depends on what I’m doing, and where my muse is at. A lot of my records are made on a 16-track tape machine, which gives me this sort of pallet and canvas to work with. It also inspires me to commit and to program to that commitment.

I also have a series of 8-channel tape recorders. Sometimes I’ll create a while piece using one of those. Other times, I’ll daisy-chain four of them together and create different movements. Then when I mix down, I just simultaneously start one after the other and fade them in on the mixer. A lot of my records are made that way as well. I typically mix down into the computer, which I use as a place to sweeten everything up and get rid of anything unwanted.

What are some of your favorite soft synths or plug-ins?
I really like the Abbey Road bundles. I implement those a lot on my records. I love the Neunaber Wet Reverberator plug-in. I also like Sound Toys, especially the phaser and delays like Primal Tap. It’s really handy to have a plug-in version of that! But I don’t go too heavy on plug-ins. Sometimes a client will ask to create a more digital sound or feel and for that I love Spectrasonics products.

How did you achieve the dark, brooding synth sounds on your new record, Night Flight?
As an artist, contrast is king to me. I love to create a sense of depth for my listeners. Sometimes that infuses darkness. I don’t want my music to always sound dark, but we’re all people with the human condition, and there is always a wave of darkness. 

With synthesizers, you’re able to psychoacoustically summon or trigger that part of your body or psyche that evokes a certain feeling. You get a couple of synths down there in the 16-pedal range and get them working together, you can really create a sense of stereo space that a listener can get lost in. 

I feel that it’s a responsibility for myself with listeners to create a space that they feel safe in, even though my music can be really dark and intense. I think that’s important, and part of the beauty and privilege of how music gets made.

One trick I have for creating dark sounds is to use what I call a Mother Modular, which has eight voices of Mother-32s, which I connect with a polysynth and poly interface, allowing me to use up to eight oscillators. That sure is juicy! It makes you feel something very heavy is upon you.

Who are some of your biggest inspirations, musical or otherwise?
Wendy Carlos, of course. She’s the master! Who else has put out a piece like Timesteps, or Tales of Heaven and Hell, or Sonic Seasonings? She’s huge to me. I also really like Allan Holdsworth, Terje Rypdal, Eliane Radrigue, Laurie Spiegel, and Chick Corea.

There’s a more unknown female electronic musician that I discovered early on named Beverly D’Fries D’albert, whom I love. She had an album called Mental Sailing, made using the ARP 2500 and EMU synthesizers. That’s a deep, awesome record. She had a huge impact on me, as did other women like Natasha Barrett, who is a musique concreté composer from Europe. 

Steven King’s writing has also had a huge impact on me, as has Robert Monroe. George Romero and his cinematographer, Mike Gornick have been a huge influence on me and how I arrange music. 

Bob Brookmeyer, who is a jazz composer and trombonist, had an immense impact on me. I actually had some personal experiences with Bob, which led me to Joe Zawinul who was a huge part of my reason for getting into synthesis. 

What’s your favorite horror or sci-fi film?
I love horror films. They have been a part of my inspiration and work for many years. My favorite album of all time is also my favorite film of all time, the original Night of the Living Dead from 1968. I think it just hit me at the right age at the right time. The music and imagery had such a huge impact on me that I became kind of obsessed with it in my very early teens.

I remember recording a cassette from the left channel of my VCR— most VCR’s weren’t stereo back then—and I would take these endless walks through the backroads in the town I lived in and just study this music. It’s still a huge influence on how I feel about music. 

Some 25 years later, I was able to get an original LP of it. I was in a band and the drummer was a sweetheart who happened to find it on eBay. This was before it turned into a $200 record. I try not to wear it out...

In your opinion, what distinguishes the score of a horror film from a sci-fi film?
I would say the use of tension and release is a little bit different. There’s a little bit more sway of tension and release with horror than there is in a sci-fi film. The choice of suspended chords with a flat-five, or a minor chord with a major-seventh superimposition would make that sort of tension very beautiful.

When you put an E-minor over an F-major, you have that tension that makes you feel conflicted, like you’re being surrounded by a forest at night. Certain uses of sustain and all of that stuff is very important to horror films.

With sci-fi films, you could delve a little bit more into sound design and psychoacoustic activity, beyond just using the orchestra or synthesizer as the sound effects.

In a horror film, you can usually hear the cellos getting randomly manipulated and things like that. Or violins that sound like leaves crawling, those kinds of aural effects. But with sci-fi films, you’re definitely going to hear modular synthesizers and things that are heavily filtered or phase-modulated. You can make someone feel like they’re coming from one dimension to the other by flipping the phase on something or creating a hard-cone filter. 

What’s one of your favorite things to do for Halloween?
I love to go trick-or-treating with my daughter, I have a nine-year-old. I’ve gone for the last nine years with her. My daughter doesn’t really like to be scared, but she’s got a very wild and feral imagination.

This year is going to be unique because of the situation we’re all in, but we live way out in the country so I think we’ll come up with something else. Maybe we’ll do something like an Easter egg hunt with jack-o-lanterns everywhere.  

Before I had a kid, I played a lot of Halloween shows. We used to wear a lot of fun costumes and play in this beautiful three-story cathedral. I did some cool electro-acoustic performances.

Who is one of your favorite movie villains and why?
I would say the vampire from Salem’s Lot. That’s one of my favorite films ever. Great score, too. I really love the vampire too, I feel that it’s pretty accurate. For that time, it’s pretty strikingly evil and cold. You just feel coldness.

I love the scene where they go down to open up the casket and his eyes open up. It’s very striking. The door creaks open and you see the crypt with all of the victims of the town awakening, and you see the white in their eyes. I love that stuff.

If you were starring in a horror movie, what would your death scene be like?
I would like to be a vampire in the movie. I love all that stuff. I would want to look really beautiful and sensually demonic. Maybe there would be some kind of necromantic evocation when the people come to exorcise my soul out in a sacred part of the haunted woods. 

I have this conceptual piece called The Horror of Elizabeth Cemetery, which is about this cemetery that’s haunted by the ghosts of shape-shifters. In this piece, the central character, Elizabeth, gets exorcised. And at the point where she can’t fight the exorcism any longer, she becomes all of these different things levitating in mid-air. It opens up all of these astral voids. There’s hellish fire everywhere and all of these beautiful things emanating around the void that’s open. She changes into a cat, then a beautiful bride, and finally, a vampire whose mouth opens up into infinity.

At that point, there’s so much vibration and resonance occurring in the woods, that the light turns into this prism of different spirits that are coming through. Then all of the spirits of the dead from the forests come through the rivers and flood open as you see their faces in the water.

Eventually, everything peaks and the void explodes. The ghost turns into a beautiful, silky, shiny white dove that just fades away as the sun rises. I’m all for it. I’m a total fanatic of horror novels and films. 

Whit FinebergWant to discover synths, pedals, and gear for creating haunting sounds?! Contact a Vintage King Audio Consultant via email or by phone at 866.644.0160.